2005: Year of the Tiger?

DOUG FERGUSON

, Last Updated: 6:49 PM ET

KAPALUA, Maui (AP) -- History indicates Tiger Woods could be in for a big year.

Competition suggests it won't be easy.

There already have been a number of parallels with the last time Woods overhauled his swing at the end of the 1997 season, after he won four times and shattered records at Augusta National as the youngest Masters champion.

He won only one PGA Tour event in 1998, just like last year.

He lost his No. 1 ranking for longer than three months -- to David Duval in 1999, to Vijay Singh last year.

He had a moment on the range in May 1999 when the swing changes he made with Butch Harmon finally kicked in. Woods went on an incredible run, winning 31 times and seven out of 11 majors over the next five years.

That happened to him again in November, an epiphany when all the mechanics drilled into his head by Hank Haney all made sense. It was an 8-iron on the range at Big Canyon in California, and Woods finished off his lackluster year by winning in Japan and at his unofficial Target World Challenge.

On the eve of the 2005 season, which starts Thursday with the winners-only Mercedes Championships at Kapalua, Woods was asked if he had the same feelings as he did five years ago.

"No," he said, pausing for effect. "It's better."

That would suggest Woods is on the verge of something grand, although his next answer spoke volumes to the obstacles that weren't around five years ago -- namely, Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and others.

Can he win eight times like he did at the end of 1999? Or almost 50 percent of his tournaments and three majors like he did in 2000? Is that expecting too much?

"It depends on how well I play and how well the rest of the guys play," Woods said. "I can hit the ball as great as I want and make a bunch of putts, but if other guys play well and make everything, it's tough to win.

"From '99 to now, the margin of error has gotten even smaller to win golf tournaments. It's become more difficult.

"Cuts are getting lower. Consequently, you can't have an off day where you shoot 71 or 72 anymore. An off day has to be 69."

And he has to hope -- as does everyone -- that Singh is having an off day.

While several top players have not failed to mention that Woods appears to be in control of his game again, the focus remains on the 41-year-old Fijian, and rightfully so.

Singh joined Woods in some exclusive company last year, becoming only the sixth player to win at least nine times in one season. He also swept all the major awards, and shattered the PGA Tour record with nearly $11 million.

And age means nothing. No one is more fit than Singh. Few work harder.

The guy had a season for the ages and took only a couple of days over the last month where he wasn't working on either his game or his conditioning. Clearly, Singh isn't ready to let go of his title as the world's No. 1 player.

He wants to start strong on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, where 31 tour winners from last year are assembled. Mickelson is the only one missing, electing not to play.

"I would really like to go out there, stake my ground and say, 'I'm still here,"' Singh said.

But he knows the sharks are circling.

Els was a couple of putts away from a spectacular year -- he missed putts on the 18th hole that would have got him into playoffs at the Masters and PGA Championship, and won the British Open. Instead, the Big Easy had to settle for five wins worldwide.

Goosen is a sleeper, but the players know how good he is. The quiet South African won his second U.S. Open title last year and ended the season by rallying past Woods in the Tour Championship.

Singh also continues to point out former Masters champion Mike Weir as someone who could be ready to rise up, while other wonder if this is the year Sergio Garcia breaks through with a major season.

"You've seen the era -- Nicklaus, Palmer, Player -- those guys at their best," Singh said. "You're seeing the same thing right now. There's not just one guy dominating. There's three, four, five guys that can win player of the year. It's going to be a great season."

Singh said late last year that he felt like he was running in an open field, far ahead of the pack, pushing himself harder so that no one could catch him. And as the No. 1 player, it all starts with him.

"The pressure is on me to keep performing," he said. "That's something I have to deal with myself, not put too much pressure on myself. If I can deal with that in a good way, I think I'll be the one ahead. If I let that bother me, then I'm going to lose a little bit there. That's the only thing I've got to worry about right now."


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